A Life-Changing School For Adults: Meet the Excel Center
Ten years ago, Katie Reigelsperger had zero high school experience. She had a GED she’d earned as a teenager but felt stuck in dead-end jobs.
Growing up, Reigelsperger’s parents struggled with addiction, and she became pregnant with her first child at 13 and her second at 18.
Then, one fall day in 2013, she overheard a conversation about a “high school for adults” while dropping her kids off at martial arts practice. Her interest was piqued, and she enrolled at the Goodwill Excel Center the next day.
The Excel Center is a free program where adults without high school diplomas can earn diplomas and industry credentials. The majority of students are aged 18-35. There are 19 campuses across the country and 15 in Indiana.
In 2019, 12% of students in Indiana did not finish high school, and almost 470,000 Hoosiers ages 25 and older had not earned a high school diploma or equivalent. Hoosiers without a high school diploma, on average, earn 37% less than those with a high school diploma as their highest credential.
Betsy Delgado, the senior vice president and chief mission and education officer at the Goodwill of Central and Southern Indiana, said that Excel schools would never have existed without the charter school model.
“We feel we are exactly why charter schools were built. To serve an extremely underserved population, and to serve them well,” Delgado said.
As a charter school, they serve anyone who comes to them. Delgado and Reigelsperger know that cost can be a barrier to entry and completion. “If it was not free most of us could not do it,” Reigelsperger said.
Students usually take five eight-week sessions and graduate in around 14 months or less. As part of the holistic approach to success, students are given life coaches, and wrap-around services from childcare to free transportation are provided.
Creating a Sustainable Program
Goodwill has long had workforce training programs. Delgado explained that at Excel’s inception, Goodwill wanted something sustainable that would improve local communities through workforce training.
Under previous models, they were seeing workers make marginal progress after being placed in entry-level jobs and then returning a few months later for further training.
The core elements of the Excel Center include completion with a nationally recognized industry certification that can follow students’ migratory path, a vigorous coaching model, and wraparound, holistic services.
Delgado said their program is not the end but the beginning for their students. They start talking to students about post-completion plans right away, and toward the end of their term Excel provides college and career readiness support.
Reigelsperger’s determination helped her graduate from the Excel Center in 2014 with 42 credits and two industry-recognized certifications including a pharmacy technician certification.
She did this with a 3.8 GPA and honors. A week after graduation - where she crossed the stage with her children cheering her on from the front row - she accepted a position at CVS. Four months after that, she got a job at a hospital intake center.
“Our belief is our students need to leave with something that can never be taken away from them,” Delgado said.
Their graduates’ diplomas need to stand up to any other high school diploma, and the program must be of equal rigor. When building certification programs, Delgado said they are balancing student interests and needs with community job needs.
Creating a Lifetime of Benefits
Evidence of successful outcomes has been confirmed by the University of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO), which found that after five years all graduates regardless of demographics earned 39% more than their peers.
Graduates are also more likely to be working and have college credits than their peers. LEO also showed that graduates of the Excel Center not only make more money, but work higher opportunity jobs and earn more college credits and professional certificates than their peers. Excel costs the same as other charter programs, but has more advantages for adults who do not have a high school diploma.
Delgado said that helping adults who left school receive their high school diploma creates a difference of almost a million dollars over their lifetime, and for students it’s an investment in themselves and their family. Children whose parents have a certain level of education do better later on, Delgado said.
Meeting Students Where They Are
Reigelsperger described Excel as a family, and said she is still close with her former instructors there. While a student, she used the childcare drop in services because then she knew her children were safe and she could focus on her school work.
“The Excel center meets students where they are at,” Reigelsperger said. “Never an ‘I’m sorry we can’t help you’ option."
Community partnership is crucial to the success of the program. Excel partners with local industry leaders and employers to connect students to jobs, and schools have a community advisory team. When opening a new school, Goodwill engages the community first and looks for densities of students who have not been able to finish school. Delgado said that graduates stay in the communities they are educated in.
Paying It Forward
Four years after she graduated, the Excel Center invited Reigelsperger back to teach. At first she said she was hesitant because she didn’t think of herself as a teacher, but like they did when she was a student, Excel believed in her and encouraged her to do it. She taught her first cohort and Excel continued to invite her back.
In 2020, Reigelsperger left her hospital managerial role to start her own training program, KLR Pharmacy Technician Training School, which has helped over 250 workers receive their Certified Pharmacy Technician credential. Their motto? “You can do hard things.”
Reigelsperger credits her growth and transformation in large part to the Goodwill Excel Center. Today, she shares her story with others who may be inspired by her journey.
“Regardless of where you come from or what cards you were dealt, you get to ultimately choose your future and choose your path,”
“It’s really cool that I can give back to students from the Excel center who are in positions that I was in, and I relate to those students and they relate to me.”
Ten years ago, Katie Reigelsperger started at the Goodwill Excel Center. Since then, she has transformed her life for herself and for her children, achieved career goals, started her own company, and helped so many students who were in similar situations to her.
Editor’s note: For a take on two Montessori community charter schools, read about Washington, D.C.’s Riverseed School and City Garden Montessori in St. Louis.
Photos courtesy of the Excel Center.